Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and social distancing measures especially, has pressured many businesses to rapidly shift to remote working.
While there are a number of useful tools and tips to assist leaders in this transition, Australian employers also need to consider their workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations.
Under the Work Health and Safety Act, employers have a duty of care to ensure employees operating remotely are in a safe environment and comply with WHS legislation and procedures as if they were in the office.
This may prove a confusing and daunting task as there are several ‘grey’ areas to consider.
Plus, OHS insurance depends on you ‘fulfilling your requirements’.
Then there are different terms of reference meaning the same thing. Pegged as ‘working from home’ (WFH), safety regulators call it ‘telecommuting’, ‘telework’ or ‘e-work’, and most state safety regulators will outline specific requirements needing to be met (and they’re not always the same).
While COVID-19 is defining the rapid rise of the WFH movement out of necessity, here are three steps to help ensure you remain compliant and meet your obligations.
Make sure you are covered
Check your worker’s compensation and other insurance coverage to ensure your policies cover WFH scenarios and to see if there are any specific exclusions you need to address.
This includes insurance for any company equipment employees may require and IT arrangements to ensure compliance with information security policies for clients and other third-parties.
Be mindful this may vary by state and industry.
Formalise WFH policies and procedures
It is good practice to engage with employees as part of this process and ensure specific WHS risks are identified and managed.
It’s a requirement that your WFH policy is accessible to all workers.
At a minimum, it should clearly cover the following five guidelines.
- A process for approving WFH on a case-by-case basis, as it may not be suitable for all job roles. Plus a formal acknowledgement by each employee they have read and understand the policy and procedures and agree to abide by them.
- Guidelines identifying what specific work can be performed, as well as establishing boundaries between working and non-working times, to mitigate the risk of fatigue and stress.
- An assessment of each employee’s home-based work area, including evidence of the assessment. This can be a covered using a checklist from Safe Work Australia, or state government sources, such as this example from Worksafe Queensland.
- A process for the notification of incidents, hazards and changes in circumstances.
- A clearly established proactive system.
Having an integrated system in place that provides adequate information, monitoring, and reviews of processes to ensure workers’ health, safety and wellbeing, is a key requirement for employers.
This means extending your existing WHS system to cater for WFH and collecting evidence to show you are fulfilling these requirements.
- Regular minuted WHS meetings that incorporate process reviews and evidence that processes have evolved to become more effective;
- Communicate, communicate, communicate via a variety of channels such as phone calls, online meetings, intranet and instant messaging;
- Establish and document plans on how to keep in touch with the workplace to reduce the impact of working in isolation and engage employees to measure effectiveness via polls or surveys; and
- Ensure early intervention can and is taking place to address issues or perceived issues around remote working risks. This includes physical risks from a poor work environment, such as workstation set up, heat, cold, lighting, electrical safety, home hygiene and home renovations, and psychosocial risks such as high or low job demands, reduced social support from colleagues, online harassment and family and domestic violence.
For many businesses putting all this together using existing online productivity tools is a significant task that can distract key personnel from the core business at a difficult time. So employers should consider using digital tools and services to automate these processes.